NHIS ready to sue tobacco industry

By Lee Hyun-jeong

Decision for suit to be made soon; chances of victory remain uncertain

  • Published : Jan 16, 2014 - 20:47
  • Updated : Jan 16, 2014 - 20:47
South Korea’s health authorities are speeding up their move to take legal action against tobacco firms to recoup rising health costs from smoking-related diseases.

The state-run National Health Insurance Service said Thursday that it would decide whether to file a suit against cigarette companies in its executive board meeting scheduled next Friday.

It was reported that most of the board members are likely to approve the tobacco lawsuit. The 14-member board is comprised of the NHIS officials, government officials and civic activists.

“Once passed in the meeting, (we) are allowed to file a lawsuit immediately, even a day after,” an NHIS official said.

If carried out, the lawsuit will mark the first case in which a public office takes legal action against cigarette makers, including foreign companies.

The public health agency declared war on tobacco companies last year, saying that it would seek “every possible means” to take back the medical costs caused by smoking.

The NHIS spent about 1.7 trillion won ($1.6 billion) on treating smoking-related illnesses, which accounted for 3.7 percent of the total insurance expenses for all diseases.

The National Health Insurance Act guarantees the NHIS’ right to indemnity to ensure that it takes responsibility for its fiscal matters. The law allows the health insurance operator to claim damages against a third party if it is found accountable for medical costs.

The health insurance body has claimed that smoking causes “significant damage” to public health. According to its joint-study conducted with Yonsei University, the risk of cancer for smokers is three to seven times higher to that for non-smokers. Men are 6.5 times and 4.6 times more likely to contract larynx and lung cancer, respectively.

The exact amount of the damages the agency will seek is not known. Observers said that it may amount to trillions of won because the NHIS is allowed to ask for recovery of its health care expenses over the last 10 years.

Whether it will win the case is extremely uncertain. Courts have held the position in a few pending suits filed by individuals that the tobacco industry cannot be asked to take full accountability for health problems. Legal experts also said that it will be difficult to prove why cigarette makers should be held accountable for medical costs used for treating smoking-related diseases.

The Korean government has pushed for anti-smoking policies since 2012. Smoking is banned in outdoor areas of public buildings or in restaurants 150 square meters or larger in size. It is also illegal to smoke in some designated public areas.

By Lee Hyun-jeong (